From: Christina Pham, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published August 12, 2013 08:49 AM

Does size matter (for lemur smarts, that is)?

Does size matter? When referring to primate brain size and its relation to social intelligence, scientists at Duke University do not think the answer is a simple yes or no.

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In the past, scientists have correlated large brain size to large group size. However, in a new study published in PLoS ONE, scientists at Duke University provide evidence that large social networks, rather than large brains, contribute to social cognition, favoring the evolution of social intelligence.

Social intelligence is the ability to use cognitive skills to gain access to food and mates while maintaining social relationships in large, stable social groups. If this social intelligence theory is correct, we would expect primates who live in larger groups to have greater cognitive abilities when preforming tests that rely on social intelligence.

This is exactly what the authors found.

To test the social intelligence theory, experimenters chose six lemur species as their primary subjects due to their genetic similarity but variance in group size and social habits. Then a team of undergraduate researchers tested 60 individual lemurs from these six species to see if they were more likely to steal food when humans were present.

The experiment consisted of three separate tests. The first involved a pair of human testers, who sat on each side of a block, with one plate of food in front of each of them. One human tester faced the plate that was also facing the entrance where the lemur would emerge from, the other had his or her back turned.

In the second test, human testers sat in profile to the plate of food, facing toward or away from the plate; and in the third test, testers wore a black band either over their eyes or mouth while facing the plate of food.

Under the social intelligence theory, those species from larger groups should be more perceptive to social cues than those species who from smaller groups. In this particular case, the social intelligence theory was correct: the size of the lemur group, in this case, ring-tailed lemurs (Lemus catta), the largest species in the sample, positively correlated with performance. In other words, the ring-tailed lemurs were more effective at stealing food undetected because they were sensitive to social cues and the orientation of the human tester.

In terms of brain size, when the lemurs were studied, scientists found that "relative brain size did not predict performance in the social-cognitive task."

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Lemur image via Shutterstock.

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